Yarl’s Wood – A question for Labour bloggers

February 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Asylum, New Labour | 18 Comments

Yarl's Wood

Because I possess a lousy news antennae, my choice for top story of the day isn’t the tightening in the opinion polls or David Cameron’s promise to ‘double up on change’. Instead, I was startled by yet more troubling allegations about the conditions at Yarl’s Wood. To add to the reported mistreatment of children and the four week hunger strike, the Observer has now obtained testimonies from people inside the facility that guards have been beating women:

Jacqui McKenzie of Birnberg Peirce said: “I have spoken to a client of mine in Yarl’s Wood and she has seen the bruising herself from the incident on 8 February. There is an atmosphere of real tension there.”

The images of the bruising show the injuries allegedly sustained during the incident by Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, who claims she was hit by staff and, since the disturbance, has been moved to London’s Holloway prison.

[…]

Meme Jallow, 26, from Gambia, who has been inside Yarl’s Wood for seven months, said: “A girl called Denise was by the windows. One officer took her and hit her by the face.”

Another hunger striker, a 37-year-old from Nigeria who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her asylum case being unfairly reviewed, said: “The security went outside and used shields like they do when there is a war. That is what they used to smash one of the women who was outside.”

Now, I’m not in the mood for hyperventilating this afternoon, and nothing new will be gained by just restating my belief that Yarl’s Wood should close immediately, with an apology offered to all who’ve been mistreated in these publicly-funded, privately-run quasi-prisons.

Instead, I wanted to guage the opinion of Labour members/voters/activists – the grassroots blog-writers and door-knockers who are the best face of an otherwise haggard-looking party.

When I learned the existence of these centres back in my more idealistic youth, it was a discovery which began my gradual estrangement from the Labour Party. I did not want to be a part of any political party which, when in government, incarcerated asylum seekers, particularly when the motivations for doing so seemed deeply craven.

Though I may have moderated in the intervening years, that remains my view. Furthermore, whilst I cannot generalise to the rest of my generation, when your formative political experiences are of a state acting punitively towards society’s most vulnerable, you may be less inclined to regard the state as a potential force for good.

I realise, of course, that there’ll be plenty within the Labour Party who’re equally opposed to Yarl’s Wood and its ilk, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that you can only change a party from the inside. What I’m curious about is whether there is any scope for change. Is this the kind of issue which enrages local activists? Are there enough of them to demand a change of approach by the party leadership? Will we ever hear a Labour leader complaining about the treatment of asylum seekers rather than excusing it?

To find out, I’m going to pull my first ever tagging trick and ask Dr Phil, Don Paskini, Though Cowards Flinch and any of my Labour-voting readers (the ones I haven’t already scared off). Can Labour get any more liberal on this issue, or I expect this squalid status quo to remain, and get over it?

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  1. Much of what Labour in the last 13 years I can forgive as at least not worse than what would have happened if the Tories were in power.

    Sure Start, the minimum wage, increased investment in schools and hospitals, abolishing section 28, civil partnerships are all thing that I am proud we’ve done as a country.

    When it comes to Afghanistan it seems unlikely that the Tories would have not followed America in and they of course voted for the Iraq war. Likewise faced with the “war on terror” I feel the tories would have eroded our civil liberties to a similar degree. So there are things which Labour have done as a party of Government which I hate but which seem almost unavoidable given the other option is the Tory party.

    But the way they have collapsed on immigration from the principled opposition of Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and even a usually forthright Tony Blair in the early 1990s to the party that set up Yarl’s Wood has mean I can’t really support them. (Not the national party anyway and I don’t really have much of a local Labour party to speak of).

    Although this post isn’t aimed at me, as I’m not a Labour blogger, I suppose Labour are my tribe and things like their last 5 restrictive Tabloid immigration acts and travesties like Yarl’s Wood means that I sorta regret identifying with them.

    • When I make this argument in public (houses), I normally roll asylum in with the issue of criminal justice policy. Labour’s had one major rhetorical victory in the past 10 years: that increased tax for improved public services is something to be desired. They won that argument in the last two elections with “Labour Investment vs Tory Cuts”.

      But when you look back to ’97, the size of the majority, the fact that Shadow Home Secretary Blair actually made some pleasing noises regarding incarceration/rehabilitation, I think it was a massive missed opportunity not to have tried to make quite substantial reforms of the CJS.

      On both that issue and asylum I feel like they’ve governed out of fear rather than conviction, and a lot of people have suffered as a result. I wonder whether, when there is a New Leader and an attempt to ‘rebrand’ the party, these issues will be brought up, or whether we’ll revert to the Old vs New Labour argument, which I never identified with in the first place

  2. Most of the activities I’ve been involved in as regards asylum seekers, refugees and immigration have taken place outside the regular structures of the Labour Party, or outside of the Labour Party altogether. Just so when protesting at camps.

    Had these things been at issue when it comes to candidate selection, perhaps one or two more sympathetic MPs and councillors might be elected across the country – but the central policy of the party is not determined by members; it is eternally self-referential, sealed within a Westminster bubble, both because of the way policy making is structured and because of the type of people who put themselves up for it.

    Not to mention that the government can ignore party-determined policy at will, and always has done.

  3. I followed your link to here from LibCon, and I may as well reproduce my comment there:

    “I am a natural Labour supporter, even after all these years of betrayal with their racist approach to immigration as typified by Class A Cunt Liam Byrne, the illegal wars and so on.

    I used to think that the way Labour have become, there’s no way I would vote for them and that it didn’t make a blind bit of difference if the Tories got in.

    I have DaveCam’s crappy election “campaign” to thank for changing my mind – for convincing me that no matter how horrible or racist Labour become, no matter how despicable their online apologists become in explaining away or staying silent when starving women are beaten up by prison guards at Yarl’s Wood just so Labour can throw some meat to the tabloids, the Tories are even worse.”

    I should moderate that by saying I don’t actually know if any Labour bloggers would defend what’s been going on in Yarl’s Wood. Maybe Alastair Campbell. Staying silent is not quite but almost as bad as explaining it away. But of all the Labour members I know, who have stuck with the party despite the last 13 years, I don’t know a single one who would support the government’s asylum policy. Some say some daft things about “legitimate grievances” of BNP voters with regards to the cultural impact of immigration.

    The question is, why hasn’t there been a revolt against the party leadership/the cabinet over these issues? It is good that the government was defeated over 90 then 42 days detention without trial, and that couldn’t have been done with Labour rebels, God bless their souls. But what about the membership? Are there any existing structures with which members can attack the leadership and force them to change policy on these issues? Does the infrastructure exist to ensure that whenever Labour are next in government, they won’t do these shameful deeds again?

    I want some signs that change from within in possible, before I devote the next 5 years of my life to trying to change Labour from within.

    • Of the Labour bloggers I read, I can only think of two who would defend Yarl’s Wood: Campbell, as you rightly note, and maybe Tom Harris. Those I linked to in this piece certainly wouldn’t, and have spoken out against similar egregious policies in the past.

      As for history repeating, there are structural flaws within the Labour Party which Dave at TCF has spoken about, which have allowed these policies to be enacted, in many cases to the cost of the ordinary grassroots activists. I’m getting beginning to suspect that for Labour to become what I would like it to become would require a wholesale change in the way the party is organised, and I suspect nobody would propose action that radical unless the party was in a dire financial/electoral position

      • Cheers for the response. My thoughts/questions:

        1) Can you link to specific stuff Dave S has written at TCF about the party’s structural flaws?

        2) What do you think the prospects for change are, given that Labour is likely to hold onto a lot of its current power (if the polls are to be believed) rather than be wiped out at the election, a purge which one hopes would lead to radical internal reorganisation?

        3) Check out this article from almost over a year ago about some proposals that were floated to reorganise Labour into a looser grassroots movement:

        http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5890902.ece

        Obviously it never happened, but do you think more progressive policies would arise from such a movement, or would it be like the Obama campaign where there was a lot of grassroots flexibility in terms of promoting the message but the message itself was either controlled from the centre or it was intentionally vague?

        4) The Obama campaign’s goal was to elect a representative rather than formulate policy for a governing party. Indeed, it appears that US progressives are unable to use the same machinery of the election campaign to push Obama to the left. I suppose this should have come as no surprise, given that these are two very different objectives, but what other models can be used as an example of a movement exerting pressure upon elected politicians to do the right thing?

        Thanks – you’ve got a great blog and your contributions at LibCon are always worth reading.

  4. Blanco,

    There’s an awful lot here for half 10 on a Sunday night. Apologies for the brief response, but I’d probably forget to respond altogether if I don’t post something now.

    I suspect Dave (if he’s reading this) is in the best position to highlight his best posts about the existing Labour Party structures, and I hope he does so. If not, I’ll try to rummage my Google Reader over the next week.

    I probably owe the internet something on Obama in light of my early salivating over his election campaign. One thing to take from that episode is that whilst he was able to build a movement which contributed considerably to his nomination & eventual election, it was policy light. More importantly than that, however, it was also rootless – this formidable network of volunteers doesn’t seem to have stuck around for the sombre business of governing. Is this Obama’s fault or their own priorities? I’m not entirely sure.

    Thanks for the kind words, and apologies again for the just-going-to-bed nature of my reply!

  5. I don’t tend to write posts explicitly about the structure of the Labour Party; commentary on the power of the NEC vs CLPs or TUC vs District Trades Councils, or on the abolition of contemporary resolutions at conference, or on the cronyism between senior TU officials and New Labour, or on the electoral college or OMOV or on the national Selection Panel etc are usually secreted amongst writings on lots of other subjects.

    The above will hopefully provide keywords useful in a search. Paul, my co-blogger, has some great stuff on Labour Party structure, which is usually built into his posts about what we did wrong in the 1980s and what we need to do right today. Sorry that’s not more specific!

  6. Blanco

    I’m Dave’s fellow blogger at Though Cowards Flinch and Dave’s right that it’s me, as a Labour member (Dave is not) who writes more about internal Labour structures, and more specifically how they might be challenged and changed.

    Try http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/02/08/mp-expenses-and-mp-selection-the-missing-link/ for starters (not least as it links to something Neil had to say at Libcon from memory) and from there perhaps http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2009/12/08/the-third-way/ about the more specific mechanics of how the union movement might exert its authority over party policy as we go forward. I do try to root what I say as far as possible in the reality of the current member disempowerment that Dave refers to.

    If you are really enthused by what I have to say – and I acknowledge that’s mighty unlikely- I did do a longish series of longish posts moving from why the Labour party is still the place to be for lefties, through the current economic situation and into how the left needs (as Dave says) to approach the 2010s without making the same mistakes as it made in the 1980s, and finishing with the mechanics of how we retake control of the party. The last post in that series (to date), called ‘The Fifth Tradition’ is at http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2009/11/09/the-fifth-tradition-part-4-of-6-a-five-point-plan-for-the-organisation-of-the-labour-left/ and it all links back from there right to the first post which is at my local blog (before I joined Dave at TCF).

    Dave of course talks down his own writings about structure in the LP. This is very good http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/02/16/whither-labour/ . Dave is less sanguine than I am about the potential for the restructuring of the Labour party in the next two to three years (whether or not we are in opposition nationally), such that abominations like Yarls Wood are removed.

    Neil

    I’ll do my reply over at LibCon to this excellent piece, as it does get right to the heart of the ‘in’ or ‘out’ question on Labour party membership when things like Yarls Wood happen.

  7. My comment transferred from LibCon:

    I am a Labour blogger (at Though Cowards Flinch and Bickerstaffe Record) and can probably be described as pretty ‘loyal’ though not entirely uncritical. I am also Trustee to a charity that seek to mitigate as best it can some of the damage caused by Yarls Wood (and other detention centres).

    Yarlswood is a disgrace, and a huge blot on the reputation of the Labour party, and you do well to use this space to highlight that. It is not valid, tempted as the loyalist bit of me, to explain it away by saying that the situation might be worse – that more acts of unhumanity inclusive of child cruelty flying in the face of the UN Declaration on the Right of the Child – might be committed on these shores if the Conservatives were in power. Yarls Wood is specifically a creation of the Labour government, and has developed into a monster even though it was not intended to be such by policy makers in the early 2000s.

    To paraphrase your central challenge to Labour party members: Why have Labour party members like me allowed our consciences to be sullied in this manner? And what can Labour party members now do about it?

    The blunt answers are that Labour party members have become (and have been for quite a long time) disenfranchised on such matters. Members of the Conservative party have as well of course (and for longer) but such matters are not as important to them. By ‘members’ I also include a large number of MPs whose instincts on Yarls Wood will be much the same as the rank and file membership.

    The reality is that Yarls Wood is not an issue ‘on the doorstep’ and is not going to be. Local Labour parties, which have become (even according to the rule book) primarily campaigning tools for the leadership are not by and large going to discuss the issue and in any event ‘resolutions’ about it will go nowhere of importance. Labour party members know that.

    I have written a good deal, and I won’t bore you here, about how the structures might be changed from within so that a proper grassroots policy voice is heard and acted upon, and the leadership and its policy advisors bound to do things like close Yarls Wood, even in spite of what its rightwing media-attuned antennae are picking up about the possible ‘popular’ reaction to such a ‘weak on immigration’ move. Making such a move will of course, force the Daily Mail onto the backfoot as the truth is outed that there is actually a distinction between asylum/refugee status and more general immigration, and that actually people are a lot more humane in their thinking than the rightwing press would have them be.

    But that’s not the state of affairs yet. At the moment, anti-Yarls Wood activity takes place outside the structure of the Labour Party, and there are Labour party members involved; it would be wrong to suggest that just because someone is in the Labour party that is all they do and think about (although it is the case for some).

    At the moment the best way to get rid of Yarlswood is through non-party based coalition campaigning of the type set up (and well-resourced) by Power 2010 (and its predecessor Convention on Modern Liberty).

    Sadly, for these civil liberties/democratic change groupings, asylum seekers rights are as far down the priority list as they are for the Labour party. The CoML in early 2009 did not have a single event about the ‘modern liberties’ of asylum seekers and refugees at its conference, which was dedicated to a different kind of liberty – the liberty of people who already have material resources and freedoms to maintain them (not in itself a bad thing).

    Similarly, Power 2010 now has five pledges to put to MPs, none of which will benefit the people of Yarls Wood. Perhaps a place to start in an internet campaign of the type that will develop from this important post of Neil’s might start with getting Power 2010 to add, by popular acclaim from all at LibCon and associates, a sixth pledge to be signed by MPs:

    ‘ That I pledge, if elected, to campaign in the House, in whatever way I can, for the upholding of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child’, and the consequent closing of Yarlswood’.

  8. […] Yarls Wood and Labour’s soul March 1, 2010 paulinlancs Leave a comment Go to comments Neil from Bleeding Heart Show, who is on cracking form at the moment, has a great piece headlining at Liberal Conspiracy today about Yarls Wood (also at his place). […]

  9. Hi Neil,

    Good post – I started to reply and it turned into quite a lengthy piece which I’ll write up this evening.

    But in short, I think most activists and indeed many MPs share your views (I know that I do). I think that it is possible to win this argument and to imagine a future Labour leader and Labour government taking a different and more humane position on this issue.

    There is quite a lot of legwork that we’ll need to do to achieve this, though. One sign of the scale of the challenge is that 61% of voters, including 46% of Labour voters, 43% of Lib Dem voters and 37% of Green voters, support a complete halt to immigration. On the other hand, the right-wing Mayor of London supports an earned amnesty for migrants who are here illegally.

    The difference is that in London, the Labour Mayor and civil society worked together and argued for a more humane and compassionate policy, which Boris felt compelled to sign up to, whereas nationally, Labour tried to appease the anti-migrant lobby and ended up with a vile and inhumane system and most people thinking that they are soft on immigrants. I think there are lessons there which the Labour leadership could learn from.

    One interesting point from the Citizens for Sanctuary research – the term “asylum-seeker” immediately conjures up negative conortations (the word “asylum” is associated with madness etc.) So part of the task is about changing the terms of the debate, possibly in terms of “sanctuary” rather than “asylum”.

  10. […] somewhat up until only a little while ago. Today, Neil Robertson for the Liberal Conspiracy, and on his own blog, has written a call-to-arms, and asked for a statement, or a kind of justification of how Labour […]

  11. […] were to measure the quality of a blog post by the quality of the responses to it, my last note on Yarl’s Wood would probably count as my most successful blog to date. Sad though I am to be unable to respond in […]

  12. […] March 6, 2010 paulinlancs Leave a comment Go to comments Following on from Neil’s challenge to Labour bloggers over Yarls Wood, and my response, I noted this letter from Home Officer […]

  13. […] centres for children like Yarls Wood. Oh sorry, detaining children not tough enough? How about we beat some women too? Worried about Asylum Seekers swamping in? Okay we’ll ban them from working. Fucking […]

  14. […] to check they’re telling the truth. We haven’t forgotten 42 day detention, ID cards, Yarl’s Wood or the ‘hit squads‘ of supernannies who were meant to sort out our ‘feckless […]

  15. A video look even better, though very good.


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